Wednesday, December 28, 2011

David Mayeda - The Sociology of MMA: Hegemonic Masculinity Unleashed

The other day, I posted an article about how male MMA fighters can suppress fear, anxiety, and most other emotions, as well as compassion and empathy.  The author of that article spent two years interviewing more than 100 MMA fighters about how they manage fear - here are some of the conclusions:
"Putting on a convincing manhood act requires more than using language and the body; it also requires emotion work. By suppressing fear, empathy, pain, and shame and evoking confidence and pride, males signify their alleged possession of masculine selves," Vaccaro said.

 "By signifying masculine selves through evoking fear and shame in others, such men are likely to more easily secure others' deference and accrue rewards and status. Managing emotional manhood, whether it occurs in a locker room or boardroom, at home or the Oval Office, likely plays a key role in maintaining unequal social arrangements."
This would seem to lead naturally to the analysis of MMA culture offered by David Mayeda at the Sociology in Focus blog.

However, I want to make a disclaimer and admission. I watch UFC from time to time and enjoy the "sport" of mixed martial arts. I do not believe that all men who participate in this sport are violent toward women or violent in general.

That said, the sport likely appeals to violent men in that it provides a socially acceptable venue for them to act out their tendencies. And this may be where the study mentioned above becomes relevant - some men may not leave their suppressed empathy in the ring or the gym. It's likely that some men adopt that social role in all areas of their lives, which makes violence toward women (and others) much more likely.

Sociology of MMA: Hegemonic Masculinity Unleashed

Imagine if it was common place for prominent members of a billion dollar company to use glaringly sexist language in public. That would be crazy, right? Except over the last few months this is exactly what we’ve seen from the Mixed Martial Arts league called the UFC. In this post David Mayeda uses the sociological concept of hegemonic masculinity to help us understand what is going on with the men of the UFC.

In a sport so male driven, it is hardly surprising that some Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) athletes publicly express opinions reflecting a violent male dominance. Recently, MMA fighter Miguel Torres tweeted: “If a rape van was called a surprise van more women wouldn’t mind going for rides in them. Everyone likes surprises” (December 7, 2011). Torres was subsequently fired by UFC President, Dana White.

Torres’s comment came off the heels of other controversial comments made at a UFC press conference, former light heavyweight UFC champ, Rashad Evans, taunted his future opponent, Phil Davis, by saying, “I’m going to put my hands on you worse than that dude on those kids at Penn State,” referencing former Penn State assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, who faces 40 counts related to the sexual assault of children.

And back in November, UFC star, Forrest Griffin, tweeted, “Rape is the new missionary.” What on earth is going on here? The answer, for sociologists lies within an idea called “hegemonic masculinity.”

Hegemonic masculinity helps to outline the plurality of masculinities existing and shifting within a culture’s hierarchal structure. Which is a fancy way of saying that men within a given culture engage in a variety of practices which give them masculine currency and power over other men and women. These practices may include (among other behaviors) taking risks, dominating other men and/or women, flaunting wealth, or showcasing athleticism.

Additionally, hegemonic masculinity requires men to police one another, that is, punish and stigmatize men who engage in so-called feminine behaviors. And perhaps it also goes without saying that hegemonic masculinity acknowledges the general degradation women, girls, and so-called feminine behaviors (see Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, for a thorough discussion). We can find nearly countless examples of hegemonic masculinity in sports. The world of MMA is no exception.

As I discussed previously, MMA’s most prominent organization is the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). One clear example of hegemonic masculinity in this particular organization (and to a lesser degree the entire MMA industry) is the absence of female fighters. Women in the UFC when spotlighted, instead serve as ring card “girls.” Or, as seen in the picture above of five prominent MMA athletes, women emphasizing their feminine features may serve as sexualized visuals alongside the male fighters for the predominantly male crowd.

Returning to the concept of hegemonic masculinity, what these comments illustrate are first, the degradation of women. Torres and Griffin both make light of sexual assault in a type of locker room-based dialogue now widely disseminated via the internet. Secondly, the comments by Evans demonstrate how sexual assault victims can be used symbolically to denigrate others. Specifically, Evans works to disparage his opponent (Davis) by feminizing him – by comparing him to boys who (allegedly) have been sexually molested.

This recent rash of comments is an indication that hegemonic masculinity still pervades our society and that male privilege is perpetuated in sporting institutions. Even though males are in conflict with one another, what we see is a culture that depreciates women and all considered feminine. Whether or not sanctions against these athletes will change MMA’s hegemonically masculine culture remains to be seen, but in an organization where men are paid to engage in violent conflict, such change is highly unlikely.

Dig Deeper:
  1. Thinking about the concept of hegemonic masculinity, identify other institutions in society where men (or boys) compete with and put down one another by feminizing each other.
  2. What behaviors do you notice males engage in to display their masculine superiority over each other and over females? Explain how these behaviors change in different situations.
  3. How can sporting institutions change so that they are more egalitarian along gender lines and alter their current hegemonically masculine culture?
Reference: Connell, R. W., & Messerschmidt, J. W. (2005). Hegemonic masculinity: rethinking the concept. Gender and Society, 19 (6), 829–859. DOI: 10.1177/0891243205278639. 
Posted by David Mayeda

1 comment:

Max Warren said...


Thoughtful post..I think that martial arts as a somatic art is more important than the sport side of it. Unfortunately MMA has been commercialized and drawn a crowd of would be Champions with a Thug mindset.The UFC in particular has some glaring issues. Great read.